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The Mystery of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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By By: Jeffrey S. Bland, Ph.D. • • April 1, 1994

Chronic fatigue syndrome is more than just feeling tired. Here’s an explanation of this serious condition and how nutritional therapy can improve patients' health.

Each month at the HealthComm Research center in Gig Harbor, Washington, I see dozens of patients who suffer from extreme fatigue to the point where they're functionally incapacitated and can no longer engage in normal work. Most have symptoms that have lasted more than two years, including chills or mild fever, recurrent sore throat, painful or swollen lymph glands, unexplained muscle weakness, headaches, joint pain without swelling or redness, and central nervous system problems including forgetfulness, excessive irritability, confusion, inability to concentrate, depression and disturbed sleep.

Some of these symptoms may have been mistaken for clinical depression, and in the past these individuals may also have sought psychiatric or psychological help. Over the past ten years, however, a new understanding of this complex array of symptoms has emerged, and the illness has been given a name—Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

This condition was first identified in the United States in the early 1980s when Paul Cheney, M.D., and Daniel Peterson, M.D., at Incline Village, Nevada, treated a number of patients who shared similar symptoms following a serious winter flu season. Because these patients had all suffered from an infection of a herpes-like virus similar to that which produces mononucleosis, the condition was at the time called post-viral fatigue syndrome.

Since the 1980s, chronic fatigue syndrome has been the subject of considerable research. This condition is not a simple viral infection but rather a complicated syndrome related to metabolic poisoning and physiological energy deficiency.

The one symptom that distinguishes CFS from other conditions is poor exercise tolerance. Formerly enjoyable physical activities become exhausting, and even after modest exercise the individual with CFS is fatigued for more than a day. This poor exercise tolerance, which has been identified as a disturbance in energy production and utilization by the body, is related to defects in the energy producing machinery of cells in the brain, muscles and other tissues.

Poor cellular energy production may also explain why chronic fatigue sufferers experience nervous system problems. CFS patients have poor cognitive function, can't concentrate on tasks and have brain biochemical disturbances that are revealed by SPECT scan.

Physiologists and medical scientists who have studied CFS find that the muscle cell mitochondria (the cells' energy furnace) of the individual with CFS are changed in shape and function from those of people who don't have this illness. CFS sufferers' mitochondria are swollen and have less energy-production ability, which may explain their fatigue and poor exercise tolerance.

Physiologists and medical scientists who have studied CFS find that the muscle cell mitochondria (the cells' energy furnace) of the individual with CFS are changed in shape and function from those of people who don't have this illness.

In essence, a person who suffers from CFS is unable to support aerobic metabolism (metabolism in the presence of oxygen) effectively. His or her cells, after even minor stress, begin to produce energy in the absence of oxygen. Called anaerobic metabolism, this condition builds up acid debris in the cells, causing cells to become "poisoned" and reducing energy efficiency and function of the tissue or organ.

One body system that's highly dependent upon proper energy production and utilization is the immune system, the set of specialized cells which help the body defend against disease.

The white blood cells of the immune system are active metabolizers, and debilitation of their mitochondria by conditions such as poisoning can result in poor immune function. Poisoning of the white blood cells' mitochondria may account for the immune abnormalities in the CFS patient.

Chronic fatigue sufferers also have a magnesium deficiency inside their cells, which also cause toxicity.

Magnesium helps neutralize toxins and promotes the uptake of nutrients into cells and the release of waste products from cells. When a cell is deficient in magnesium, it's less able to utilize nutrients and is more likely to accumulate toxic by-products, thereby possibly reducing the cells' energy functions.

Some time ago, clinicians found they could alleviate CFS symptoms by giving large doses of magnesium intravenously. More recent research indicates magnesium insufficiency in cells may be caused not by a lack of magnesium in the diet but by what's called "magnesium wasting." This condition may occur as a consequence of the debilitation of the cells' energy production ability due to poisoning. Poisoned cells can't effectively pump magnesium across the cellular membrane.

The uptake of magnesium into cells requires a substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is produced in the cells' mitochondria. When cells don't function properly, either because of toxicity or serious viral infection, and can't process nutrients into energy, ATP levels drop, and the cells' ability to absorb magnesium and other nutrients is reduced.

New Treatment

Building upon this new understanding of the importance of maintaining or restoring effective cellular energy production, Scott Rigden, M.D., a practitioner in Tempe, Arizona. pioneered a new treatment program based upon metabolic detoxification. He uses nutritional intervention to reactivate mitochondrial energy production in chronic fatigue sufferers. In just three or four weeks on this nutrition program, a number of patients who had been debilitated for two or more years have improved dramatically.

In his mitochondrial restoration program, Rigden uses a hypoallergenic diet augmented with nutrients which improve the functional integrity of the mitochondrial enzyme systems and prevent the production of damaging free radicals generated by the body as a result of toxicity.

The success of this program is evident in a number of dramatic cases. One woman, an elementary school principal who had been unable to work for over a year, was able to return to work in restored health after only two months of therapy. Another, an accountant who owned a small business, was in serious jeopardy of losing her business because the mental impairment which accompanied her CFS rendered her incapable of working with numbers. After just a few months of using this new therapy, her health improved, and she was able to resume her job.

When cells don't function properly, either because of toxicity or serious viral infection, and can't process nutrients into energy, ATP levels drop, and the cells' ability to absorb magnesium and other nutrients is reduced.

In the past, a patient suffering from chronic fatigue was advised to get more rest, drink plenty of fluids, improve his or her nutrition and refrain from abusive lifestyle habits. While these are all good suggestions, they don't provide the complete answer for CFS sufferers. The use of various drugs and immune-stimulating agents has provided relief to some CFS patients. However, the new metabolic approach toward mitochondrial restoration has opened clinical doors for the improvement of function in CFS sufferers looking for a more permanent therapeutic approach.

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